Celebrating three decades of a hip-hop classic including an exclusive interview with Masta Ace himself!
They don’t make ’em like the Juice Crew anymore.
Even without Marley Marl corralling and cajoling his men, the Juice Crew would have prospered well into the early ’90s. Sure, Marley knew his way around an 808 drum kit—his every beat was perfectly calibrated for kickboxing glory. But can you think of a more well-rounded rap collective? Let’s take a headcount. There was swashbuckling lothario Big Daddy Kane; stern enforcer Kool G Rap; and the Diabolical Biz Markie. All these guys were complete beasts (even taking into account Biz’s yawning technical deficiencies). And Masta Ace? He was the crew’s secret weapon, a soft-spoken, idealistic everyrunt who matriculated at the University of Rhode Island. His degree was not yet complete when he rapped on “The Symphony,” the greatest of all hip-hop posse cuts.
Ace’s verse on “The Symphony” is quite good (there’s an inspired, if slightly cheesy gag about Robinson Crusoe), but nobody at the time could have predicted that this lad would one day surpass his flintier, more domineering peers. Ace himself had little idea what was to come. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August, and the man born Duval Clear is negotiating NYC traffic; the sound of wind-borne debris is omnipresent.
“Those guys [in the Juice Crew] had hit records and popularity that I didn’t really garner during that time period,” Ace says. Yet of everyone in the crew, Ace has enjoyed by far the most stable career. His music is still solidly above average, and he puts on a mean live show. Big Daddy Kane—by some margin, the Juice Crew’s biggest star—is not nearly so productive; he was last seen debasing himself before neoliberals on The Beat with Ari Melber.
What is Ace’s secret? How does he operate so sustainably while his mummified friends and cohorts ration money for Puma sweatsuits? It’s pretty simple: he’s never afforded himself a smidgen of complacency.
“When you hit a certain point of acceptance from the hip-hop audience, and especially the New York audience, it’s like you’ve arrived,” Ace says. “For my entire career, I’ve been trying to just arrive.”
“From the outside looking in, someone might ask, ‘What are you talking about?’” he continues. “‘Look what you’ve done; you have arrived.’ But that wasn’t my perspective. My perspective was, look at Big Daddy Kane. He has ‘Raw’; he has albums like Long Live the Kane. I never reached that level of acceptance, and for that reason, I kept plugging away.”
Ace’s debut, Take a Look Around (Cold Chillin’/Reprise), turned 30 on July 29. The album wasn’t groundbreaking, at least not formally. It didn’t upset the apple cart as Long Live the Kane had. Ace was young and wallflowerish and largely a vehicle for disciplinarian superproducer Marley Marl, whose beats on Take a Look Around are funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter. There are deadly 3/4 drum breaks, glissando samples and orgasmic James Brown grunts—the usual Marley fare, with a twist courtesy of Roland Corp. Up until then Marley had abstained from experimenting too heavily with synthesizers, but here he sometimes creates magic out of electronic ether.
Mister Cee also contributed two tracks to Take a Look Around. He and Ace were inseparable: “We had stuff in common; we played Tecmo Ball, Madden. I think he liked rolling with me, as opposed to the Kane crew, because I was more on his wavelength. I was calmer and more measured.”
From his current vantage point as a 53-year-old, Ace doesn’t care much for Take a Look Around. He “definitely holds it in high regard,” but when he listens to the album he hears a guileless pup—not the battle-rap whirling dervish of 2001’s Disposable Arts.
AUDIO: Masta Ace Disposable Arts (full album)
“I don’t count it among my best albums,” Ace says of Take a Look Around. “I didn’t have a lot of creative control because Marley was the one spearheading the process. Even my messaging on the album, I feel like–I was trying to get a certain point across, but it was very over-your-head. It wasn’t subtle, or tactical, or speaking to the audience. It was preachy.”
Ace did a lot to expand the field of hip-hop rhetoric, to challenge common assumptions in the field. Far from preachy, he was affirmatively, revolutionarily upbeat. He was Mr. The-Ghetto-is-Escapable. Other rappers in 1990 pointed fingers (think of Brand Nubian and their tirades about female sexual profligacy); Ace’s rason d’êtrre was uplifting, rather than scolding, people. Or at least showing solidarity. On “The Other Side of Town,” he consoles a lowerclassman too hungry to pass high school geometry.
More glorious is when Ace fills the Brooklyn rabble with thoughts above their station in life. You deserve more than this, he tells the young Shaft wannabes of “Brooklyn Battles.” A better world is possible, he assures the penny ante street thief of “Movin’ On.” The word “together” has repellant connotations in an American context, but the song “Together” is not poncy, political-speechwriter fluff. Ace makes a good case for mutual cooperation as our only path forward.
Take a Look Around might be best known for “Me and the Biz,” a hilarious case of false advertising. Fans expecting a giggly back-and-forth with Biz Markie were instead treated to Ace’s (fairly sublime) impersonation of Biz Markie. This was a doomsday scenario, not a miraculous burst of comedic inspiration.
VIDEO: Masta Ace “Me and the Biz”
“That was supposed to be a duet,” Ace says. “I recorded my parts first, then I recorded Biz’s parts in my regular voice. But had I sent it to him like that, he wouldn’t have known which rhymes were his. So I came up with the idea to do an impersonation of sorts.”
“When it came time to actually record the song in Marley’s studio, [Biz] didn’t want to do it,” Ace continues. “He wanted me to bring the song to his house and record it there. Marley didn’t agree with that. We were at an impasse, so Marley just decided to leave the song like it was. Which surprised me, but I just went with the flow. Once again.”
Ace was confrontation-averse in his personal dealings with Marley Marl but did fight, successfully, to be acknowledged as a co-producer on Take a Look Around. And he exhorted his listeners to fight (as best they could in New York’s rigged, contracting pseudo-meritocracy) for the future they wanted; to have some get-up-and-go. Take a Look Around is a masterpiece of what is colloquially termed “positive” hip-hop. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.